Back in the olden days, when matches were scarce in the outlying areas, many bushmen went back to their ancestral roots and used flint and steel instead. I’m not talking about the spark-showering ferrocerium rods sold today as “firesteels”, ferrocerium wasn’t even invented until the early 20th Century. No, what I’m talking about is a lump of steel (high carbon is best) struck against a lump of rock (flint or quartz, etc.) with the resulting spark caught by some form of tinder (charred cloth or dried fungus) and then coaxed into a flame with the addition of some bullswool (such as a bundle of dry grass or shredded stringybark). That’s a crash course in the use of the traditional flint and steel. The good news is that the use of a traditional flint and steel becomes much easier with practice.
Rather than waste precious matches on lighting their tobacco pipe, some old-timers carried a French style pocket strike-a-light kit. These were a small flint and steel outfit which used a slow match to catch the spark. Once the end of the slow match was a glowing ember, it was used to light the pipe tobacco directly and the cord was then pulled into a tube and automatically capped with a metal ball on a chain. This sealed off the end of the tube, causing the ember to consume all the oxygen in the tube and put itself out, thus avoiding the embarrassing situation for the bushman of having a hole burned through one’s pocket. It was a pretty clever and amazingly functional design. The whole outfit of flint, steel striker, tube and slowmatch was carried in a sealed brass or tinplate tube where it was protected from moisture. This was a handy little kit which could also be used to light the campfire to boil the quartpot, and was especially valuable in the event that the matches were used up or became wet.
If you have seen the first episode of Ray Mears Goes Walkabout which looks at the 1860s Stuart Expeditions you’ll see one of these kits which was carried on one of the Stuart expeditions by 19 year old Stephen King Jnr. Uncle Ray and the fellow from the Adelaide-based John McDouall Stuart Society were looking at the King kit from the perspective of using it to light the campfire rather than just as a pipe or cigarette lighter and we can too.
I’ve carried a flint and steel for years but it’s a big kit in a big round tin. It consists of a “C”striker, a lump of Tennessee quartz I traded with a blacksmith in the USA and a few bits of charcloth along with some shreddy stringybark. It has served me well, but it’s a bit big and bulky. You can see my big kit and read a bit more about firelighting with traditional flint and steel in this piece I put together on my old blog The Jungle is Neutral. A pocket sized flint and steel outfit like the French strike-a-light would be much better for me for my swaggin’-it trips, so I set out to make one.
Here’s the bits and pieces needed to put together one of these pocket strike-a-light outfits:
Flint – I used an antique musket flint.
Steel – I took a piece of a broken file and shaped it on the bench grinder.
Slowmatch – I used a piece of 100% cotton window sash cord.
Automatic cap – I used a lead sinker and a bit of fuse wire. The hole in the sinker I sealed with wax.
Tube – I used a spent rifle cartridge which I cut the base off and onto which I soldered a brass retaining clip/bracket for the steel striker.
Waterproof case – I used an old army surplus weapon oiler with a cork seal and a cap secured with a chain.
You don’t need to house your kit in a tinplate or brass tube, a leather or oilskin pouch will do just as well.
A couple of years back I managed to pick up a few of the 1700s-vintage British ordnance pattern musket flints which were uncovered, along with a treasure trove of antique arms in the Royal Nepalese Armoury in the early 2000s. These are the very same flints as found in archaeological digs in Sydney Cove and other early settlements since they were used by early colonists – military and civilians alike. Many old timers used worn out musket flints for their fire lighting kits, so stumbling upon these old flints was a bit serendipitous.
These flints out of Nepal were most likely knapped at the flintknappers’ works at Brandon in Suffolk in the UK, which by the time of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s had become the largest and most reliable producer of flints for muskets and cannon in the world. The gun flint industry started to die out with the introduction of the percussion cap for muzzle-loading firearms in the mid 1800s, but the Brandon flintknappers was still operating well into the 1940s, and there are videos on youtube which show the knappers in action, making their regulation gun flints.
The flints had to be shaped in a certain way so they would fit into the leather-padded jaws of the cock of the flintlock gun. The spring-loaded cock was pulled back – cocked – and when the trigger was pressed, the piece of flint flew forward and hit the steel frizzen, which threw a spark which was caught by a small amount of black powder used to prime the pan. This ignited the main charge and the hot gasses expelled the bullet or shot out of the gun’s barrel. You can see that for reliability each flint had to be the right shape and size. It was skilled work from the Brandon flintknappers.
Being around 2cm wide x 3cm long, my flints are standard military pattern musket flints. The striking edge is knapped to a chisel point and the bottom and the top planes are perfectly flat, a testament to the skill of the knapper in separating the layers of flint. The flint fits perfectly into the tinplate tube I am using as a waterproof case for this pocket strike-a-light kit.
If you don’t have proper flint, then simply use a piece of normal white quartz smashed up. As long as it has sharp edges it will work. I learned to make fire with flint and steel by using a piece of smashed up quartz in place of flint.
Contrary to popular internet wisdom, I have found that the steel from cheap Chinese metal files sparks just as readily as the steel from the antique and vintage files that people all over the internet have been destroying for years when trying to make flint and steel kits. Do future generations a favour and don’t destroy your vintage files. Use the Chinese ones.
I had an old, well-used Chinese-made file in the toolbox which was surplus to requirements, so I placed it in the bench vise and broke it into pieces with a ball pein hammer. I decided to leave the original teeth intact on the flat surfaces of the file for decoration and for more positive grip. Using a bench grinder I removed the teeth from the edges of the file, since these are the striking surfaces, and I rounded the whole into a more oval shape. Using a hacksaw I cut a groove down the centre of the striker to help hold the striker in place in its bracket on the tube while in storage or on the track.
I used a piece of 100% cotton window sash cord I had in the shed. I understand that it’s quite difficult to find this stuff today, since most of the sash cord sold has polyester content. You’ll need to buy some from the hardware store and experiment. Never fear if it’s no good for slowmatch, it’s still good, old-style cordage for use around the camp.
You can find hurricane lamp wicks pretty easily in usable lengths and these are a good substitute for slowmatch as long as you boil and dry them first. You see, it’s not desirable for a lantern wick to keep glowing after you’ve doused the flame, so they are treated with a borax solution which acts as a fire retardant. This ensures that the kerosene lantern fuel is what burns, rather than the wick itself. You can remove the fire retardant by simply boiling the length of lantern wick and then drying it out before use.
If you are absolutely stuck or just want to buy the right stuff right off the bat then there’s a mob in Spain on ebay who are selling trench lighters and who also sell replacement slowmatch. At time of writing they want around A$13 for 5.5 metres, which is pretty much a lifetime supply for most people.
Some say that your slowmatch should be soaked in saltpetre for a more reliable ember, but I don’t bother. The cotton sash cord does the job without such treatment.
Before use, the end of the slowmatch has to be charred with a flame or hotplate and then withdrawn into a capped tube and allowed to consume all the oxygen. This leaves you with what is essentially charcloth on the end of the cord. Leave the end of the match charred and because it is quite fragile, try not to damage the charred area when striking the flint.
This is an ingenious design. It’s a metal ball attached to the slowmatch in such a way that when the slowmatch is pulled into the tube the ball caps the end of the tube. This allows the burning ember to consume all the air inside the tube and preserve the spark-catching abilities of the charred end of the cord.
I used a lead fishing sinker as the basis of the automatic cap. I secured a piece of fine fuse wire to the top of the sinker with a loop at the top to stop the wire pulling through the sinker, and then fed the other end of the wire down through the hole in the sinker. I filled any residual space in the “tunnel” through the sinker with a few drops of wax from a lit candle. A short length of wire was fastened to the free end of the fuse loop and to the other end I wired a small fishing hook with the sharp tip removed with a pair of sidecutters.
The fishing hook is hooked through the slow match about 2cm from the charred end. When the slowmatch is pulled through the tube, the sinker caps the tube. Easy.
If you didn’t want to use a lead sinker, a round wooden bead of the right size would do the job just as effectively.
My slowmatch is about 0.8cm diameter, so I chopped up a spent brass 5.56mm NATO cartridge by removing the base with a hacksaw. If you don’t have a spent cartridge, you can use brass tubing of the correct diameter for your rope. This can be found at any local hobby shop which caters for model train enthusiasts, but you could probably find some online if you looked hard enough on sites like ebay.
Next was to make up the bracket to hold the striker to the tube when not in use. This helps stop the waterproof case from rattling.
I cut the bracket from a little sheet brass I had laying around. I bent it around the striker until it was a close fit and then I bent it directly in the middle so that the bend would correspond with the groove I had sawn into the striker. This helps hold the striker in place in the bracket.
All that was left to do was solder the bracket to the tube. My soldering is a little dodgy but it’s not going to fail. I cleaned up the soldered joins with a fine file.
I used an old Swedish oil container from an M1894 rifle. At least that’s what I think it was. It was originally a widemouthed tube and a narrow mouthed tube joined together by a piece of sheet metal. Each of these tubes is made from tinplated sheet steel and each has a screw-on steel cap with a cork gasket. The caps were connected to the tubes with chains.
It was a simple task to separate the two tubes using a pair of tin snips and then smooth the sharp edges with a file, but it wouldn’t hurt to leave them connected. You could carry your strike-a-light kit in the large tube and some extra slowmatch or bullswool in the smaller one.
The tubes were filthy and oily so they had to be cleaned and degreased before use. To accomplish this I filled them both with spray degreaser and left them overnight. In the morning I filled them with a little fine gravel and some added a squirt of detergent and a few drops of water. Shaking the tubes caused the gravel to scour the inside clean. With the insides clean and bright I sprayed a little WD 40 on the inside of the tubes and wiped them out with a paper towel and a bit of dowel. I cleaned the outside of the tubes with a wire brush and a bit of emery paper, rubbing them back until they were shiny.
The completed tube holds all the components of the strike-a-light outfit and keeps the moisture off them. I haven’t yet found a use for the smaller tube, but no doubt I will sooner or later. I grabbed a Swedish pistol oiler a while ago and converted it into a match safe for my strike anywhere matches.
As mentioned previously, you don’t need a metal tube to carry your strike-a-light outfit. You can use a leather or oilskin tobacco style pouch and this will have the benefit of allowing you to carry dry tinder and kindling at all times.
Here are some pictures of the completed pocket strike-a-light outfit: